A few months ago, there was a knock at my apartment door. It was a nice middle-aged lady selling books for children. Stories and activity books based on the Good Book, the Bible, the life of God's son. We all need a little of God's love in our lives. The books were nice. Nice illustrations of kind, loving faces, beautiful, easy-to-read fonts and words that weren't too long, easy for the little ones to read. I found all of that out before I could even open my mouth and I was already holding a few shiny ones in my hands.
I took a deep breath and handed the books back to the lady:
"Thank you! They look wonderful but I am sorry. We're not a religious family."
"You don't believe it GOD?!" The lady tried to act surprised even though I am sure it wasn't the first time she heard it.
"We believe in something but it isn't god," I answered.
"But don't you ever wonder? Look at the world around you! When you think about it, isn't all of creation miraculous? The plants, the leaves, the sunshine, the rivers and the mountains. When you think about how intricate they all are and how they all bind together into this wonderful world around you, doesn't it make you think that there must be someone, a power of infinite wisdom, behind it all?"
A clockwork universe, I thought to myself.
"Really???" The lady now seemed genuinely incredulous. "So how do you explain all this?"
I stepped out in the hallway and closed the door. No need for the kids to overhear a debate on religion.
"I think it is one absolutely incredibly improbable coincidence. A little miracle in how unlikely it is and yet it still is."
"And it doesn't make you wonder..."
I wasn't trying to be callous. I meant every word of it. The lady seemed almost upset so I had to back up a little bit.
"Look, it is a miracle. Life and everything around us. And, an even bigger miracle is the fact that we are conscious of our own existence. But I still don't think god, or at least the way he is portrayed by any church, had anything to do with it."
It took a lot more talking with the old lady to allay her fears. I was not the antichrist. I respected everyone's right to believe what they want, as long as they do not hurt anyone. But we simply believed in something else.
"But you will need guidance some day, when you go through rough times."
Now this was the hard part.
"Look, I've been through a fair bit in my life already. I've had a reasonably good share of rough times. But I have always believed it was my responsibility to figure things out. I believe I am a good person. I believe that, if I listen well enough to what is deep within me, my humanity, what is deeply inside all of us, I will make the right choices.
"If god didn't want me to make decisions but rather wanted me to follow his commandments, why did he give me the power of reasoning? And, if I was to have to turn to the church for advice, what makes any priest any more qualified than me to interpret the intent of god's will? He is a man just like me, isn't he? Does he have any more experience with life and the challenges I face than I do? Or does he have a better understanding of what god intended for me than I would if I really looked deep into what god put inside me, if god ever did?"
The old lady left another ten minutes later. We both respected each other at that time. She still tried to shove a small book of readings from the bible as she was leaving.
"No, please," I pleaded. "It will be a waste of a paper. There are others out there that might need it."
"Well, GOD bless you then," she said as she departed.
"God bless you, too," I answered. We meant the same thing. And yet not quite in the same way.
I cannot quite recall when I decided to throw all the rule books out. It was probably in those rebellious teen years when individuality is formed and when young people put their parents through hell because they realize that the world is not as happy-go-lucky of a place as they thought, that many things don't make sense and that it definitely can be made better. Of course, not all teenagers go through that. But I did. And it is not as simple as I thought. Even though it is.
I realized at one point that rules are there to simplify things. To make decisions easier for people. No need to suffer through the questioning, weighing things out, feeling and stumbling, trying to figure out how a decision is going to play out for everyone. Especially for the big, life-altering decisions. And no need to worry that, if you make a mistake, the burden of the blame will be on your shoulders alone. Why go through all that? There are customs, accepted behavours, rules, laws and even commandments out there to cut through all the muck. Done! Move on with your life! If you don't like my decision, go look it up in the book. It's all there, black on white. Not my fault! There's probably something wrong with you if you don't like it!
But that wasn't good enough for me.
The mother of a girlfriend of mine told me once that I was a master at over-complicating things. She was right. I hope I still am, to some degree. Not so much that I want to complicate things for anyone, including myself. But I definitely don't want to over-simplify them. Life is complex, messy and difficult to understand at times. But that's what makes it wonderful. It is precisely by navigating this complexity, sorting out our own path through all the obstacles and detours and double-backs that we get the opportunity to define ourselves, shape our destiny, become individuals and be of substance, of consequence.
Why give anyone else the power to rule over my life? To this day, I cannot think of a good enough reason.
OK, maybe a little simplicity here and there just for balance when it all just gets too much. If I need to be at peace, I'll obey the speed limits on the highway; I'll stare at the walls sometimes, pretending I'm alone in the elevator, when I am too tired; I might even try to eat a balanced diet for a while if I have too much on my mind to listen to what my body wants.
But I'd be damned if I'll allow someone else's interpretations of life as it is shape the important choices I face. I'll take the wisdom of the sages into account but I'll weight it against my emotions, my beliefs and my understanding of where I want to go in life. Too much? Complication is a small price to pay when you need to decide who your friends really are, should you follow family and social expectations, how to seek out what truly makes you happy, where you stand in life and what you bring to those around you. No customs, rules, laws and even commandments should be allowed to interfere with a person's quest for self-fulfillment, with a person's own integrity and their responsibility to themselves and others.
There are those who would say if we all did that, our world would turn into chaos. But my answer to that is that the only way you would think that is if you believed that people are intrinsically flawed, that they'd always make a mess of everything. The original sin, if I recall correctly, it is called. Naturally, if that was the case, people would need someone to rule over them, to tell them who they should be and how they should act. THAT I don't believe.
I may be naive, I may be even stupid, but I need to believe that all of us carry a seed of greatness, the power to overcome challenges and be transformed through them into something better. I need to believe THIS to make it through the day in face of all the proof to the opposite.
Because I don't think it is us who is flawed. It is our rules, customs, rituals and beliefs which are naive. There are no cookie-cutter solutions to life's complexity, especially in a world where we are trying to still find out who we are. The answers are to be found in our faith in our own goodness, in our own integrity, deep within ourselves. That is what should guide our decisions, not the rules of someone who does not believe in us to begin with.
So let's go through the list of rules, habits, laws and "divine" guidelines and question them all with the strength of our determination to be better. Let's cross those out that don't make sense or rewrite the ones that could be improved. One person at a time, one rule at a time, let each of us write our own rule books. And let's compare notes. And let's understand that all of us are probably right and wrong at the same time. And that each decision we make should be revisited again and again, as many times as is necessary until we have exhausted all we can learn from it. Or better yet, until we lose the capacity to do so. Because the potential for learning and getting ever closer to the image of ourselves we have put our faith in is only limited by our imaginations!
Let the good work begin!